November 1, 2013
One of the most spectacular things about science is the occasional discovery of something that cannot be immediately explained, stumbling across something new and unique that makes us rethink everything we have learned thus far about how our world or even our very cosmos works. It is rare, but it does happen. Such is the case with Kepler-78b, a planet that almost looks like it belongs in video games like Mega-man or Sonic the Hedgehog.
To put it simply, Kelper-78b should not exist. It is a lava world that circles its star in one of the tightest orbits researchers have ever seen. It makes a complete rotation of its sun every eight and a half hours, putting it less than one million miles away from the star itself, and this is why the planet should not exist according to currently accepted theories on planetary formation. According to Dimitar Sasselov, astronomer for the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the star that Kepler-78b orbits would have been much bigger early on in its life-cycle, when the planetary formations began. This means that Kepler-78b would have actually been inside of the star when it formed, which is an impossibility. Likewise, there is no known way for the planet to have moved into its present orbit at a later time, as nothing would have been able to prevent it from continuing on and plunging into the star. This puts the lava-world of Kelper-78b into a rather unique category of “how the heck did that happen?” in terms of our understanding of the universe and just how galaxies are formed. Kepler-78b is a member of a new class of planets only recently discovered through the data from NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. These worlds, all about Earth-sized, have an orbit of less than 12 hours, and of them, Kepler -78b has been called the poster child.
Kepler-78b is, unfortunately, a doomed world, destined to draw closer and closer to its sun until it is completely destroyed. It is predicted that this should happen sometime within the next three-billion years. Interestingly enough, discovery of this new type of planet has led researchers to speculate about such a world existing within our own solar system. If one did, it would have been long ago consumed by our own star, leaving no trace behind for us to identify. Did our own little corner of the galaxy have a planet like Kepler-78b at one time? We may never know.
New unknowns are always fascinating, as they force us to reevaluate what we thought we knew in order to understand them, and the discovery of Kepler-78b is no exception. Who knows what new theories regarding the creation of planets and solar systems could arise from this discovery? Only time will tell.
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